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Harvard professor apologizes for remarks on economist

Niall Ferguson

AP/File 2010

Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson, Harvard professor, sought to defuse a controversy Saturday when he apologized for telling an investors’ conference that the policies of influential economist John Maynard Keynes were short-sighted because Keynes was gay and had no children.

“My disagreements with Keynes’s economic philosophy have never had anything to do with his sexual orientation,” Ferguson said in a statement. “It is simply false to suggest, as I did, that his approach to economic policy was inspired by any aspect of his personal life.”

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Ferguson is known for his best-selling books, television appearances, and sometimes controversial statements on history and economics. He made the remarks about Keynes at the Altegris Strategic Investment Conference in Carlsbad, Calif., on Thursday in response to a question about Keynes’s oft-quoted warning against thinking too far ahead while making economic policy: “In the long run we are all dead.”

Ferguson said children and grandchildren bear the long-run burdens of economic policies, which, he argued, Keynes did not understand.

In his apology, Ferguson wrote: “This was doubly stupid. First, it is obvious that people who do not have children also care about future generations. Second, I had forgotten that Keynes’s wife Lydia miscarried.”

Financial journalist Thomas Kostigen said he gave Ferguson credit for apologizing, but was “dumbfounded” by the remarks.

“I salute him for standing up and owning it,” Kostigen said. “I just wonder how does somebody’s brain go there . . . especially a smart guy like him.”

Kostigen witnessed Ferguson’s remarks and wrote about them in a blog post for the Financial Advisor.

Speaking by phone on Saturday, Kostigen said Ferguson called Keynes “effete.” He also said that Keynes was married to a ballerina and instead of procreating, the couple probably discussed poetry, according to Kostigen.

“As I tried to lift my jaw up off the table, I didn’t have time to ask any follow-ups,” Kostigen said. He said no one in the room questioned the statements, but he felt there was an awkwardness afterward.

Kostigen was most surprised, he said, that the hypothesis sounded like something Ferguson had thought through and had not just made up on the fly.

“Sometimes you get tongue-tied and you say something stupid, he said. “This was beyond that, and therefore he has apologized.”

Jami Schlicher, a spokeswoman for conference organizers, said she did not have a transcript or recording of Ferguson’s remarks.

Ferguson, who like Keynes was born in the United Kingdom, is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University and has written extensively on international history and economic history.

He was an adviser for US Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid and has been highly critical of President Obama, writing in an August 2012 Newsweek cover story that “America under this president is a superpower in retreat, if not retirement.”

Thursday’s remarks were not Ferguson’s first comments on Keynes’s sexuality. In his 1999 book “The Pity of War,” Ferguson wrote that World War I “made Keynes deeply unhappy. Even his sex life went into a decline, perhaps because the boys he liked to pick up in London all joined up.”

Keynes, who lived from 1883 to 1946, was perhaps the most influential economist of the 20th century and the founder of Keynesian economics, a theory that says, in part, that government intervention can help kick-start lagging economies.

Harvard spokesman Kevin Galvin declined to comment on Ferguson’s statements. Attempts Saturday to reach the chairman of Harvard’s History Department and representatives of the Harvard Queer Students and Allies were unsuccessful.

Jeffrey Gundlach, founder of the investment firm Doubleline Capital, said he heard the exchange and “wasn’t offended by it in any way.” It made him think back to how his views changed when his first child was born.

“I thought it was informative and actually sort of insightful,” he said. “I was under the impression that he had been asked that question before and probably given that answer before.”

Ryan Thoreson, president of the Harvard Gay & Lesbian Caucus and a 2007 Harvard graduate, said the organization welcomed Ferguson’s apology. He said the criticism based on Keynes’s personal life was “ill-founded” and “not a scholarly argument.”

“This is just pure homophobic supposition,” said Thoreson, 28. “Professor Ferguson has students who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender, and I think it’s irresponsible to suggest that their sexuality precludes them from contributing anything meaningful to society and to future generations.”

On Harvard’s campus Saturday, students voiced disagreement with Ferguson.

Ved Topkar, a freshman studying biology, said he was pleased Ferguson’s words generated disagreement and prompted an apology.

“Ten, 20 years ago people would have taken his comments at face value. Given his role and his status at this university, I think no one would have challenged him on that,” he said.

Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe
.com
. Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox
@globe.com
.
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